Abigail Washburn never intended to facilitate cross-cultural exchange when she first visited China in 1996. The Evanston, Ill., native, studying to become an international lawyer, picked up a banjo while in China, learned a few chords and eventually found herself playing Appalachian music in a packed Bejing club.
Back in the States, Washburn honed her banjo chops in the all-girl old-time string band Uncle Earl. And she’s now integrating her love for Chinese music into a string setting with the Sparrow Quartet. The quartet — banjoist Bela Fleck, fiddler Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Sollee — performs songs in both English and Chinese, blending elements of old-time music, bluegrass, folk and classical string quartets.
In 2004, the quartet was the first group to tour Tibet on a U.S. cultural grant, and they returned to China during the Olympics. Washburn spoke with NUVO about her recent trip.
NUVO: You just got back from China. What did you do there?
Washburn: We thought we were getting hired to come play an opening celebration of the new U.S. embassy, to play an Olympic event and to go to Sichuan [Province] and play places affected by the earthquake. We did none of those things. Due to the current situation over there, we ended up doing totally different stuff.
NUVO: What happened?
Washburn: The reason I believe that we didn’t end up playing an Olympic venue was because, other than sporting events, the Chinese government really didn’t want groups of people convening. There was a lot of protesting during the Olympic torch run and they just didn’t want to take any chances during an Olympic event. They knew it could quickly become a platform for political issues and they wanted to keep it about the sports. I have very mixed feelings about all of it, but I’m really glad that I got to be over there.
NUVO: What kinds of audiences do you play for in China?
Washburn: There were three stops in factory towns and in Beijing. We had one student performance, a bunch of online stuff and radio stuff, but no public performances. Students in Beijing were extremely thoughtful, sophisticated, intellectual kids that were really excited by our music. It felt like they were extremely discerning when it came to music and culture and they really appreciated what we did. I mean, there was Bela Fleck, the greatest banjo player in the world, and they could appreciate it. There was me, writing these interesting new songs that had a lot to do with China, and they really appreciated that. They knew where we were coming from and they identified with us and really got into it. I think that’s the future of the kind of audience I’ll keep building in China, too.
NUVO: Are you afraid these Chinese audiences will see what you do as a gimmick?
Washburn: I think that is the possibility with every audience we play for. It’s the white girl with blonde hair singing in Chinese. There is complete potential for that to come off as completely unauthentic and gimmicky. That couldn’t be further from the truth for me, so how I present that to people becomes very important.
NUVO: You have a deep love for Chinese culture.
Washburn: I feel that part of the purpose is to share that love. I definitely care about the impact that the music’s having, and that’s a big reason why I do it, but I also feel like I can’t really control people’s reactions, so my strongest sense of duty, I guess, is to be a small example of what I’d like to see in the world.
NUVO: When you play for an audience in the States is the set list the same as you have been playing in China?
Washburn: It’s a lot of the same music. We have some cover songs that if it feels like the right audience, we might pull them out. In China we really didn’t do that. We felt like they’d be a little obscure for Chinese audiences and we kind of wanted to hit the heart of Sparrow Quartet music before doing that. We played Bloomington before and we’re thinking that there might be some repeat audience so it would be nice to throw in a few new things.